By Sumayyah Meehan
Her books about Islam have helped millions, if not billions, of people learn about Islam. She has used her own life to spread the message of Islam far and wide. There are over forty books that she has penned which cover a range of Islamic issues from marriage to raising teenagers to life after death. Her name is Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood.
â€œTrue believers have nothing to fear in the most gloomy scenes of life; they have nothing to fear in the valley of death; they have nothing to fear in the grave; they have nothing to fear in the world beyond, for God is with them. They do not go anywhere alone, for God is the Companion, the Guide.â€
– Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
She was born into a Christian family in 1942 in London. Ruqaiyyah earned an honors degree in Christian Theology from the University of Hull in 1963 and acquired a post-graduate teaching certificate the following year. She was a devout Christian and used her faith to write books to teach others about her religion. However, while studying intensely about the life of Jesus in the light of Christianity, she began to question her own faith. In 1986 she converted to Islam. In addition to being an author, she spent her professional life working as the Head of Religious Studies for a variety of inner city schools in the UK. She retired in 1996 to focus more on her writing and lecturing. In addition to being an Islamic author she also utilizes her time in giving dawah to both Muslims and Christians alike.
As a Muslim convert myself, I have at least a half dozen Islamic books by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood. They helped me learn about Islam and continue to help me perfect my deen. For that, I will always be thankful to Ruqaiyyah. I had the opportunity to interview her recently and she opened her heart on a variety of issues.
1. Some people have called you a â€˜feministâ€™, do you agree and can a woman be both a feminist and a Muslim?
In many ways, I am indeed a Muslim feminist. I am not happy with the title as it carries a lot of baggage in the west, and implies many things I do not have sympathy with. However, I am fervently opposed to any abuse of women, which is done in the name of Islam by some of our Muslim brothers. It has not been my experience that non-Muslim men oppose Muslim women â€“ far from it. The kinds of things I am very disturbed by are such things as forced marriage, child-marriage, coerced cousin-marriage, female genital mutilation (especially in Egypt and Somalia, apparently), â€˜honorâ€™ murders, forcing women to wear particular garments or forms of hijab that are not their own free decision, inflicting extra wives on a first wife without her free consent, sexual abuse of women, and so on.
2. Not long ago, a Muslim woman performed the Adhan (Call to Prayer) while another led the prayer to a mixed congregation of men and women. Since a woman leading the prayer in Islam is forbidden, share your thoughts on this.
I have much sympathy with women who wish to function as imams. It is already perfectly possible, of course, for women to carry out all the counseling and teaching functions of imams already, and increasingly women are leading prayers for female congregations. Whenever the womenfolk are sectioned off completely from the men for prayer, this is controversial â€“ for if a sutrah divides the women completely, they may not be part of the same congregation at all, and when there is no leader, it is difficult to perform the prayer properly. The danger here is that we may soon develop women-only mosques, which I feel would be a shame. Personally, I far prefer the format as it was in Madinah in the Prophetâ€™s (s) time–of the women praying behind the men in the same hall (except on occasions where there is no space), and not being banished to a separate space. I have lectured many times in mosques, to mixed audiences, but have not yet been invited to do a Friday sermon. I do not see any reason why a woman should not do it. However, as regards prayers, although I have led women and children, I personally do not wish to see women leading the prayers unless there is no suitable male available. I prefer to be a grandmotherly figure at the back, â€˜embracingâ€™ in spirit all those praying in front of me. I feel that over the last few decades men have seriously suffered a big dent in their masculine roles as leaders, providers, careers, and so on, and need building up by their womenfolk, not competition.
3. You seem to write quite frankly about sex and other topics within marriage. Have you met any criticism for writing in this manner as a woman?
Only when my book first came out â€“ there were some bookshops that refused to stock it, until demand led them to order it in. The feedback I have received has been phenomenal, and I am amazed that my simple words seem to have been able to help many experiencing various difficulties. Alhamdu lillah.
4. Mashaâ€™Allah you have written so many books that have undoubtedly helped others in their journey to Islam, how did you discover that you had a gift for writing? What was your first experience like?
I have always written, even since I was a child. My first big book I did while my first baby was an infant in arms â€“ I used to write a bit every time he went to sleep.
5. Writing requires a lot of time, effort and personal sacrifice, how have you managed to balance your career and family life over the years?
It has been quite difficult, because it does mean withdrawing to the typewriter, and leaving everyone to get on with it. I tried to do most of my work during the night or in the early hours, when people were not around. When I married Waris Ali Maqsood, a Pakistani, people thought I would never be able to continue working, but actually he enjoyed his own company quite a bit and I got loads done. My last big book, on the Life of the Prophet took me ten years, and was really responsible, I suppose, for my failing eyesight and increasing arthritis. I cannot walk much now, but use a mobility scooter â€“ having given up my lovely Honda, another big sacrifice!
6. In the United States there has developed a rash and quite insulting practice of â€˜muslim filteringâ€™ at all airports. For both domestic travel as well as international. Have you ever been on the receiving end personally for any of that? If so, what was your reaction and/or feelings?
I have not been singled out at all. I do feel that Muslims must understand the insecurity of travelers at this time, and the general nervousness, and should accept the need for lots of security with good grace. Inshaâ€™Allah, the fear of Muslims will blow over â€“ but we ourselves must try harder to make the few who misinterpret Islam to allow mass killing of innocents realize they are not martyrs in any sense, but murderers. Very dangerous teachers or criminals have duped those who have become terrorists with motives other than Islam.
7. Do you see a bright future for Islam or do you think extremists with overtake the religion and overshadow mainstream Muslims?
I see a bright future. I think there is one danger that needs thinking about, and that is that many Muslim scholars and writers can easily become sucked in to defensive writing against our own extremists, and also extremists of other faiths â€“ for example Christians who attack Islam over their internet sites. It is all too easy to be so irritated and enraged that we fall for wasting hours of our time writing detailed replies to what are usually nonsensical attacks. I have learned that it is far more productive to just ignore them, and concentrate on writing about true Islam. So long as Muslims keep on giving good examples in noble lives, and join in with their communities so that they are seen to be noble, compassionate and caring citizens, false pictures of Islam will not last for long. Scholars, of course, must make the teachings very clear to those led astray by extremism â€“ for if these misled people really are deeply religious, they will not accept anything other than teaching based on Quran and hadith. Scholars need to show full background to the verses that have been misused, and present the true attitude that would have been demonstrated by the Prophet (pbuh) if he were still with us. Remember that he never hit back against those who abused or hurt him personally, and his example was so attractive that in his lifetime the vast majority of those who had hated him realized his goodness, believed in his message, and accepted Islam for themselves.
8. Have you ever traveled to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj or Umra? How was your experience?
I am afraid I have never been to Saudi Arabia and have not yet done my hajj, although I have paid for someone else to go. I now have trouble with mobility, and have virtually given up travel, to my great sadness. Maybe one day someone will make it possible for me to do my hajj.
9. Given that we are currently in the Holy Month of Ramadan, what is your best Ramadan memory?
I think the year I married Waris, in Ramadan. We were traveling about, on the road all over Pakistan, and it was wonderful to break our fast at roadside pit stops or mosques. One night we slept over in a mosque, and another night was spent on a village veranda, and one memorable night in a big bed with 10 other people/children. A most unusual honeymoon for a western lady! What an amazing experience.
10. What types of food don your Iftar table during Ramadan?
Nothing special, Iâ€™m afraid. After ten years my marriage to Waris ended, and I now cook the food that suits my grandson who lives with me. I do still enjoy curries and salads and fruits, though.
11. Please share what projects you are working on.
I have just finished my major work, the Life of the Prophet (pbuh), which has been accepted for publication by the Islamic Research Institute of Islamabad. I am hoping it will be published before too long. I am sure my work will be very different from anyone elseâ€™s. My major interests tended to be on the â€˜femaleâ€™ side, and genealogy and dating. I was so fascinated, as I did my research, to discover how information gleaned from hadiths and ancient texts did add up to a very accurate picture with very few exceptions. I was fascinated by things like the inter-relationships of the various companions, and especially the powerful matriarchs of that time, and enjoyed weaving them into the text.
To give a taste of what I mean, hereâ€™s an example of using the data. We know that the Prophetâ€™s Abyssinian nanny, Umm Ayman, was only 9 when the Prophet was born. Hence she was born in 561 CE. We know that her son Usamah was only 17 when the Prophet died, and was just being placed at the head of the Muslim army. Hence, if he was 17 in 632, he must have been born in 615. We know that Umm Ayman married the Prophetâ€™s foster-son Zayd ibn Harithah, and that Zayd was 14 in the year the Prophet married Khadijah, 595, who gave him as a gift to her new (third) husband. Therefore Zayd was born in 581, and if Usamah was born the year after he married Umm Ayman, she must have been 54 at the time, and Zayd 34. So, the Prophet was not the only one who married a much older woman â€“ far from it. Zayd, of course, went on to marry the Prophetâ€™s cousin Zaynab bint Jahsh as well, and after their divorce she married the Prophet as his seventh wife.
Many people do not realize how wealthy women could have multiple husbands and have children by them all before the coming of Islam, but after accepting Islam agreed to take only one at a time â€“ and even so, many still managed to fit in four or five consecutive husbands! There was no particular stigma in divorce, and many of the Prophetâ€™s (s) wives were divorced women or widows, and thought nothing of it. The Prophetâ€™s (s) Jewish wife Safiyyah was the pious and studious daughter of a famous Madinah rabbi, and wealthy heiress of two Jewish tribes. She first had contact with the Prophet when she was a child of 10, and went on to marry an elderly Madinah Rabbi, then after divorce, his own grandson, another Rabbi (who the Prophet (s) had executed for his incitement of treason), and ended up married to the Prophet when she was 17. All very fascinating stuff!
To find out more about Ruqaiyyah Maqsood, please see http://www.ruqaiyyah.karoo.net